The Aftermath of the First World War and the Rise of Nazism
Writing in Mein Kampf, while in prison after his conviction for leading the failed Munich Beer Hall putsch of November 1923, Adolf Hitler described how his First World War ended:
During the night of October 13th–14th  the British opened an attack with gas on the front south of Ypres. They used the yellow gas whose effect was unknown to us, at least from personal experience. I was destined to experience it that very night. On a hill south of Werwick [Wervock], in the evening of October 13th, we were subjected for several hours to a heavy bombardment with gas bombs, which continued throughout the night with more or less intensity. About midnight a number of us were put out of action, some for ever. Towards morning I also began to feel pain. It increased with every quarter of an hour; and about seven o’clock my eyes were scorching as I staggered back and delivered the last dispatch I was destined to carry in this war. A few hours later my eyes were like glowing coals, and all was darkness around me.
I was sent into hospital at Pasewalk in Pomerania, and there it was that I had to hear of the Revolution.1
In his self-dramatizing account of how, as a blinded corporal, he had learned of the Armistice and revolution, Hitler claimed:
The more I tried to glean some definite information of the terrible events that had happened, the more my head became afire with rage and shame. What was all the pain I suffered in my eyes compared with this tragedy?
The following days were terrible to bear, and the nights still worse. To depend on the mercy of the enemy was a precept which only fools or criminal liars could recommend. During those nights my hatred increased—hatred for the originators of this dastardly crime.
For Hitler, the lesson was clear:
There was no such thing as coming to an understanding with the Jews. It must be the hard-and-fast “Either-Or.”
For my part, I then decided that I would take up political work.2
This statement tells us a great deal about the origins of Nazism and Nazi politics: as a consequence of a lost world war, expressing blind hatred, and uncompromising in its violent hostility to Germany’s supposed enemies and particularly to the Jews. It is difficult to imagine a more revealing end to the First World War than that experienced by Adolf Hitler: lying in a military hospital in provincial Pomerania, temporarily blinded by a mustard gas attack in Flanders3—a helpless invalid—as the German armies collapsed and the hopes and illusions that had sustained support for Germany’s war effort evaporated. If there was a single, identifiable moment when Nazism was born, it was in that Pasewalk military hospital in November 1918.
The sudden, catastrophic, and, for most Germans, unexpected end of the First World War came as a tremendous shock and was accompanied and compounded by the shock of political revolution. The apparent unity that had greeted the outbreak of the war in 1914—itself more a reflection of how the events of August 1914 were reported and subsequently perceived than of the actual reactions of Germans at the time4—was overtaken by open, bitter, and violent division. Whereas most Germans believed the Great War had begun with a people united in their devotion to their country, it ended with the abdication of the Kaiser and the discredit and disintegration of the imperial system amid social and economic disorder. It was not the military superiority of the Allies, reinforced by hundreds of thousands of fresh American troops in 1918, that framed Germans’ memories of the defeat, but their own collapse. Widespread discontent over hardship within Germany during the war; working-class radicalism and strikes; the “covert military strike” of German soldiers after the failed offensives of early 1918;5 and finally, in late October and early November, the mutiny of sailors at Kiel and Wilhelmshaven, rebelling at the prospect of being sent on a hopeless suicide mission when the war was as good as lost, helped precipitate the fall of the Kaiser. The politicians of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD), into whose laps the German government fell in November 1918, hardly enjoyed universal popular support. Instead, they faced an embittered, suffering population filled with unrealistic expectations about what peace could bring and profoundly divided as to how they viewed the road ahead.
In the months that followed the Armistice and revolution, Germany appeared to sink into economic and political chaos. Although the political transition of November 1918 itself was remarkably peaceful, and although the return and demobilization of Germany’s wartime armies proceeded much more smoothly than anyone had predicted, bloodshed soon followed. In what had been the eastern Prussian provinces of Posen and West Prussia, Polish insurgents managed to wrest territories with a majority Polish population from German control. In Berlin, an ill-prepared Communist uprising in January 1919 was easily crushed and the Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered. In Germany’s industrial areas (in particular the Ruhr) there were strikes, sharply declining productivity, and violence. As the old army withered away, the government aided the formation of, and became dependent upon, freebooter military formations—the Freikorps. Consisting of veterans of the war and school leavers who had missed their opportunity to fight in the trenches, the Freikorps units suppressed supposed left-wing threats to the government, often in an extremely brutal and bloody manner, and served as an introduction to politics for many men who later figured large in the Nazi movement. Shortages of coal and food, transport difficulties, and raging inflation made Germans’ lives a misery. Political uncertainty and economic chaos were reflected in rising crime levels, as property crime soared against a background of inflation and violent confrontations became increasingly common.6 The well-ordered society that Germans thought they knew seemed to have vanished. Shortly before his death in 1990, the great German-Jewish sociologist Norbert Elias reminisced: “I still clearly remember the experience that the war suddenly was over. Suddenly order fell apart. Everyone had to rely on himself. One knew that peace had arrived, Germany had been defeated, which was sad, and then one tried quite simply to get on with life.”7
The First World War had left Germany a much less civilized, much rougher place in which “to get on with life.” Not surprisingly, this provoked widespread resentment. Faced with the disintegration of order, Germans looked for somewhere to place blame for the catastrophe that had befallen them. Rather than confront the hard truths about how their country had got into, fought, and been impoverished by the war, they looked angrily in two directions: externally, at the Allies who imposed the allegedly intolerable Versailles diktat upon a prostrate Germany; and internally, at those at home who supposedly had stabbed Germany in the back. The Versailles Treaty, which Germany was compelled to sign in July 1919, came as a terrible shock. For Germans, many of whom at the time of the Armistice had looked forward in naïve hope to a peace inspired by the lofty principles enunciated by American president Woodrow Wilson in the autumn of 1918, the treaty seemed unbearably harsh. The loss of territories in the west (Alsace-Lorraine, Eupen-Malmedy), the north (northern Schleswig), and, most important, in the east (Posen, West Prussia, parts of Upper Silesia), the imposition of a huge reparations bill that would take decades to pay, and the “war-guilt clause,” which ascribed blame for the outbreak of war to the German government, were regarded as intolerable and unfair. Without the economic resources that the Versailles settlement removed from the Reich, it appeared to many that the country’s future was bleak. Thus it became easy to ascribe Germany’s difficulties during the 1920s not to the material and social costs of a lost world war, but to an allegedly unjust peace settlement imposed on a prostrate country by the Allies. Condemnation of the Versailles settlement was voiced not only on the right, but across the political spectrum; indeed, hostility to the Versailles diktat became perhaps the only point of consensus in the conflict-ridden world of Wei- mar politics.
The question of how Germany had landed in this mess was no less damaging to responsible democratic politics. Many Germans came to believe that, after steadfastly defending Germany against a world of enemies for four long years, the armed forces had collapsed because of treason at home. Not the superiority of the Allies, but a “stab in the back” was the alleged cause of the sudden, unexpected defeat. Given the context of Germany’s defeat in the First World War—with German armies still on occupied enemy soil, after having knocked Russia out of the conflict and having imposed a punitive peace on the defeated power to the east, and after years of optimistic propaganda and news management by a high command and government that promoted illusions about Germany’s prospects—it was easy to believe that German soldiers had not been defeated on the field, but instead had been undermined by traitors and revolutionaries at home. Whereas the frontline soldiers allegedly had fought a heroic struggle to the end, it was the fainthearted population at home—whose morale had been sapped by shortages, hardship, and unscrupulous left-wing agitators who knew no Fatherland—who sup- posedly had failed to sustain Germany’s war effort. A myth of heroic struggle was coupled with a myth of betrayal, and the myths proved easier to swallow than the ambiguous, messy, and uncomfortable reality of how Germany in fact had lost the war.
The politically corrosive myth building began the moment Germany gave up the hopeless military struggle. In mid- November 1918, for example, the Prussian War Ministry gave instructions for the “festive welcome” for “our field-grey heroes [who] return to the Heimat undefeated, having protected the native soil from the horrors of war for four years.”8 Friedrich Ebert, the Social Democrat who assumed the leadership of Germany’s provisional government after the November Revolution and who himself had lost two sons in the war, spoke in similar terms when he greeted returning German troops in Berlin on December 10, 1918, declaring: “Your sacrifice and deeds are without parallel. No enemy defeated you!”9 Although Ebert also observed that “only once the superiority of the opponents in men and materiel became ever greater did we give up the struggle,” a pattern had been set. The assertion was accepted that German forces had been undefeated on the battlefield. But if not on the battlefield, then where? Soon after the Armistice was signed, the allegation was heard increasingly in Germany that the Reich had been “stabbed in the back” at home. This claim was taken up, and amplified in a characteristically disingenuous manner, by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who testified to a parliamentary committee of investigation in November 1919 that Germany had lost the war not because of a failure on the part of the military leadership or of the fighting troops, but because the Heimat had not remained steadfast. In a sentence that would have far-reaching repercussions, Hindenburg repeated the allegation, which had been circulating since December 1918, that, as an “English general” supposedly had said, “the German army was stabbed in the back.”10
Hindenburg, who together with Erich Ludendorff had been responsible for the conduct of Germany’s war from 1916 to 1918, should have known better. But that did not prevent the phrase from becoming fixed in the political vocabulary of Weimar and Nazi Germany, or from being taken up by millions of people who had their own reasons for accepting the stab-in-the-back legend rather than facing the messy truth about what had occurred when Germany lost the First World War. Thus the stage was set for the substitution of memories of the war experience by a myth of war experience. Rather than seeing it as senseless slaughter in the service of an autocratic regime, Germans could, in the words of George Mosse, look “back upon the war as a meaningful and even sacred event. . . . The Myth of the War Experience was designed to mask war and legitimize the war experience; it was meant to displace the reality of war.”11
The way in which Germany’s First World War ended and was remembered had grave consequences. It meant that the new, democratic republican order that emerged after 1918, and was a product of defeat, faced division from the outset: A large proportion of the German population—the majority, as it turned out—remained either sullenly hostile or violently opposed to the new democratic “system.” It meant that those who had been responsible for Germany’s catastrophic partici- pation in the First World War—which left more than two million Germans dead, millions more scarred for life, former German territories to the west, north, and east taken from German control, and an economy in deep trouble—were able to evade their responsibility. It meant that the new republican government faced popular expectations that, in the extraordinarily difficult position in which it found itself diplomatically and economically, it could not hope to fulfill. And it meant that Germans did not really come to terms with their defeat and make the transition from a wartime to a peacetime society after 1918. The hatred so frequently given expression in German political life—against the Versailles diktat, against democratic politicians, against the alleged “November criminals,” against the rich, against Jews and foreigners—was in large measure a legacy of the First World War.
This provided fertile ground for the growth of a political movement built on hatred, committed to liquidating the political system that emerged from military defeat, overcoming political and social divisions through the establishment of a German “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft), and reversing “the terrible events,” “the dastardly crime,” of November 1918. Adolf Hitler, who quite literally could not see what was happening in Germany when the Armistice was signed, was determined that the stab in the back never should happen again. Never again would there be a betrayal at home of German soldiers at the front; never again would allegedly un-German elements be allowed to spread their poison among the civilian population. The answer to the rhetorical question Hitler asked in the passage of Mein Kampf describing his experience of November 1918—“Were we still worthy to partake in the glory of the past?”12—would become an emphatic “Yes.” The shame of 1918 would be expunged, through either total victory or total defeat. The traitorous elements would be eliminated; there would be no second armistice.
The German Workers Party, later to become the National Socialist German Workers Party (or Nazi Party), was born in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. It had been founded on January 9, 1919—one of many small, right-wing political groupings that sprang up in Munich in the chaotic conditions that followed defeat and revolution. Munich, perhaps even more than Berlin, had experienced profound political upheaval after the war. Here the Bavarian Wittelsbach monarchy fell on November 7, two days before the Kaiser abdicated, and was followed by a succession of radical left-wing regimes, the last of which (the Munich Soviet Republic, which looked to Moscow for its inspiration) was crushed at the beginning of May after a chaotic month in power. Eventually it was succeeded by a conservative Bavarian government that created a congenial home for right-wing opponents of the republican government in Berlin. The future leader of the Nazi Party had returned to Munich from Pasewalk on November 21 but remained in the army as long as he could; indeed, he was not formally discharged until the end of March 1920. In this, Hitler was quite unlike the great mass of the veterans of the First World War, who wanted nothing more than to leave the military behind and return to civilian life. Hitler found employment in the army as a V-Mann (Vertrauensmann, an informant) and, after being assigned to an anti-Bolshevik “instruction course,” became one of a squad of army informants charged with the surveillance of the many radical political groups that were springing up in the Bavarian capital. It was in this role that, on September 12, 1919, he attended a meeting of the German Workers Party. A few days later, he became a member.13
Hitler’s path into politics, joining the small, “boring” German Workers Party, was a direct consequence of his experience of the end of the First World War and of his continued employment by the army. In this very tangible sense, Nazism was linked with war from its beginnings as a political movement. There were other links as well, including the Frei- korps, which in many respects functioned as a “vanguard of Nazism.”14 The Freikorps units, which were led by officers with recent war experience and numbered roughly 250,000 men in March 1919,15 served not only to buttress the army and protect the government against real and imagined threats from the Left; they also carried war into the postwar period and provided a temporary home for many men who later became prominent in the Nazi movement. Among these were Ernst Röhm, who was chief of staff in the Freikorps Epp; Rudolf Hess, who had been a member of the Freikorps Epp; Martin Bormann, who had served with the Freikorps Rossbach; Viktor Lutze, who had joined the Organisation Heinz and the Frei- schar Schill; and Reinhard Heydrich, who had served under General Maercker in the freiwilliges Landesjägerkorps.
Given that almost all young adult German males had served in the armed forces during the war, it was inevitable that veterans of the trenches would loom large in the unrest and radical politics of the postwar years. However, it was not just the experience of combat during and after the First World War that shaped Nazism and the Third Reich. Many of those who became instrumental in carrying out the most radical Nazi policies, including the policies of genocide, were of the generation that experienced the war and postwar unrest as adolescents (more often than not with their fathers away at the front).16 Their war had been the experience of the home front but was no less important for that. Indeed, it was in this generation, more than the “front generation,” that the acute observer Sebastian Haffner discerned the roots of Nazism: “The truly Nazi generation was formed by those born in the decade from 1900 to 1910, who experienced war as a great game and were untouched by its realities.”17
The fledgling Nazi movement—Hitler changed the name of the German Workers Party, which he quickly came to dominate, to the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP) on August 7, 1920—was characterized by anti-Marxism, antisemitism, opposition to the Versailles settlement, and a commitment to violence, domestic and foreign. Each of these attitudes stemmed from the war that had just been fought and lost; each pointed toward the war to which a future Nazi regime would dedicate itself. “Marxist internationalism” was regarded as a threat that drew German workers away from their national, racial community and undermined the unity of the Volk, which had sabotaged Germany’s struggle in 1918 and therefore had to be broken. The Jews were regarded as a bacillus that lay behind the Marxist threat, sought to pollute, weaken, and destroy the German Volk, and therefore had to be eliminated. The Versailles settlement was seen as a means by which Germany’s enemies aimed to keep the Reich prostrate forever and had to be overturned not merely to restore the status quo ante, but to allow Germany to expand and seize the “living space” that it allegedly needed in the east. And violence was viewed as the means by which to achieve a Third Reich and a German-dominated Europe—by smashing the democratic Weimar “system,” destroying Marxism, solving the “Jewish question,” breaking the “chains of Versailles,” and building up the armed forces so that Germany again could go to war. In sum, Nazism was a movement that dedicated itself to waging war both within (against Marxists, Jews, and their sympathizers inside Germany) and without, and was guided by a racist view of the world that posited a hierarchy of human value with the German “Aryan” at the top of the heap and “the Jew” at the bottom.
In this the Nazi movement was hardly unique. Numerous radical right-wing fringe movements sprang up in the feverish and violence-soaked atmosphere in Germany after the First World War, drawing into their ranks the resentful, the angry, and the desperate who were deeply antagonistic toward the republican order that had come to power thanks to defeat in war. Violent hostility to the new republic, to the Marxists, to the Jews, and to Versailles attracted considerable support in the immediate postwar period. In place of the bitter divisions that weak Weimar governments appeared to amplify, there was to be a united German Volksgemeinschaft, which would overcome class and social divisions and from which the racially “foreign bodies” (Fremdkörper) would be removed. The violent rhetoric and practice of the Nazis—who quickly established strong-arm squads, the Storm Sections (Sturm- abteilungen, SA) that from 1921 were used aggressively to protect political meetings and to spread propaganda—fitted in with a climate of latent civil war characterized by coup attempts, hundreds of political murders, industrial unrest, and rising crime. And the racist, antisemitic message of the Nazis, while it may have been more extreme than that offered by some of their competitors, was in tune with a climate that saw an upsurge in antisemitic incidents and violence.18
Copyright © 2004 by Richard Bessel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.